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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Beating up freaks for Jesus

The God-fearing folks at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado offer more than book learnin' to their students; they save the children's souls from eternal damnation. Like many charter schools, the state-funded institution is a laboratory for new educational strategies. Their latest experiment, "Pound a Pagan for Jesus," which employs peer pressure to get the students right with the Lord, is quickly becoming a huge success.

Here's what students, parents, and teachers have to say about the program.

During lessons on evolution in the science class, students regularly snicker, Peak to Peak teacher Steve Goldhaber said. Several parents said students persistently disrupt science classes with "creationist" outbursts and religious arguments.

When Ayn Dalgof was a first-grade teacher's aide at Peak to Peak in 2002-03, she said parents -- who could influence teacher salaries -- regularly grilled teachers on their religion. During the holidays, decorations, songs and stories had a Christian theme, she said.

"There was an underground that pervades the entire school of Christian philosophy and a lack of respect of other beliefs," Dalgof said.


But one boy sitting alone at the edge of campus Tuesday told a different story. The 13-year-old stared at his lap and nervously plucked the grass while he talked about the popular "fundies" who regularly push him and his friends around.

"They're in your face, kind of rude about it, saying 'You're going to die, you're going to burn in hell,'" said the boy, dressed in all black. The Camera is withholding his name out of concern for his safety.


Parent Louise Benson said her son, who no longer attends Peak to Peak, was bullied in 2003. The then-13-year-old was arrested on allegations that he threatened online to kill the bullies. The criminal case against him was later dropped. He also threatened to kill himself because of the harassment.

"My son was told you're going to hell if you don't believe, you're the child of Satan," Benson said. "There gets to be a point where kids can't take it anymore."

One eighth-grade girl recently slashed her arms with a knife and threatened to kill herself if forced to return to the school. Her mother said she was tripped, jabbed and subjected to relentless verbal abuse, including being called a lesbian and a pagan.


Another father, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed Benson. He said the same students pick on his daughter: Even though she's Catholic, they think she should go to their church, he said. The father said his daughter has been bullied since sixth grade and, despite his frequent calls and e-mails to administrators, the abuse continues.

"If they take more action than they currently have, there's the fear of admission that they were aware of the problem before and did nothing about it," he said. "To be honest, I don't know how much the administration is involved or if they do walk through the world with blinders on so they can honestly say, 'I don't know.'"

He said he thinks a religious group might be using the school as a way to "have a private school but not have to pay for it."

In addition to the harassment, he and Benson said the school's pro-Christian leanings make a hostile environment for non-Christian students. They said students have distributed fliers for religious activities, student presentations often have religious themes and some events used to be held at a nearby church. The school's auditorium is still under construction.

Roughly 5 percent of Peak to Peak's middle-schoolers requested to leave the school during the 2002-03 school year, a slightly higher percentage than in other area middle schools, district numbers show. About 1 percent of Louisville Middle School students and 3 percent of Angevine students requested a transfer.

A Louisville mother who is Buddhist called her daughter's three months at Peak to Peak "a nightmare." She said the school had obvious fundamental Christian undertones. Parents frequently talked about church, and their children were out of control in class, said the mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I think they put so much stress on these little ones that they just snap," she said.

Judd Golden, chairman of the Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he has received complaints from Peak to Peak parents and students for the last three years about religious harassment that's not taken seriously enough by the administrators.

"We think they're failing to adhere to religious neutrality," Golden said. "Students' religious beliefs are being demeaned."

He said the repeated complaints led him to the conclusion that there must be tacit support for Christian bullying at the school.

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